tv [untitled] CSPAN June 14, 2009 10:00pm-10:30pm EDT
it's a real pleasure to be here. it's my third time in kansas city. and each time i seem to enjoy it more and more. my brother, howard, who as henry said is helping me out on this trip -- he and i went to the baseball game last night. [laughter] >> we didn't stay the whole game i must admit. if you haven't been to kauffman stadium lately to see the changes, it's pretty cool. the stadium's great. bess truman was a big baseball fan and in the truman household, bess was the sports fan. and as a kid she actually played a lot of sports. harry wasn't much of an athlete. as a kid he wore glasses and
confessed to not being very coordinated but bess placed a pretty good short stop according to harry and in her later years, she actually followed the royals pretty closely. she was actually honorary cochair is it thomas eagleton in 1974 running for reelection of the senate. was honorary cochair of hiss campaign and when he went to the house on delaware street, he was amazed. all she wanted to talk about was the royals. [laughter] >> anyway, btabout this story i takes place in the summer of 1953 after harry and bess left the white house and that summer they did something has millions of ordinary americans do all the time. and something that had never been done before. they took a vacation, a summer vacation. they took a road trip. harry was behind the wheel. bess rode shotgun and they drove
from 2500 miles from the east coast to west coast. the trip was unique because the trumans traveled alone. at that time, ex-presidents did not get any secret service protection. and so it was just harry and bess in their chrysler new yorker. there was no security contingent, there was no press pool. it was just a middle aged couple driving across america in a heat wave. and just as they received no secret service protection, ex-presidents back then also received no pensions. harry and bess truman were on a fixed income so as a result, they were frugal travelers. one night they stayed in a cheap motel. another night in indianapolis. they crashed with friends. they took most of their meals at roadside diners as my exhaustive research has revealed they were
partialing to fruit plates and iced tea. bess seemed to enjoy cantaloupe. never before or ever since has a former president and first lady mingled so casually with their fellow citizens. it was a road trip unlike any other in american history. i've written a book about it. i happen to think it's a pretty good book. you can decide for yourselves. before i tell you more about the trip let me tell you a little bit about myself and how i came to know the story. in college i majored in folk-lore. yeah, you may be surprised to learn that folk-lore is not a lucrative profession. [laughter] >> so shortly after graduation, i began working in public radio, which is a kind of a welfare program for people with useless liberal arts degrees like me. [laughter] >> and this worked out pretty well. i worked at stations in seattle, st. louis, minnesota, and maine. in 2003 i went to los angeles to work for a program called
marketplace it's a business news program. it was around this time that my lovely and talented wife, allison took the foreign service exam and passed and in 2005, she was hired by the u.s. state department and for her first assignment we were sent to bomaco. yeah, we didn't know where it was either. it's the capital of mali, a small landlocked nation in west africa. so i left marketplace and suddenly found myself in west africa with a lot of time on my hands. this gave me ample time to write my first book which is called "last team standing." this is a book about the 1943 merger of the pittsburgh steelers and the philadelphia eagles during world war ii, the nfl was so short of players that they actually had to merge the steelers and the eagles. they were known as stegles. they were 4a. running back had ulcers, they actually did much better than you might expect.
how well did they do? the book is available in paperback. [laughter] >> after that book came out in 2006, i was still in west africa and still had plenty of free time on my hands. so i began fishing around for another book idea, and i suspect like most writers and reporters, i keep a folder marked "ideas." 99.9% of which are bad and that's probably a good word for it. but every once in a while you find a gem and buried in it i found a peace of paper "truman road trip." it was back in 1998 at the time i was working at the public radio station in st. louis and i came out to kansas city to do research for the 50th anniversary of the 1948 whistle stop campaign. and i went to the truman library and in the basement of the library there they had -- i think they still have his cars. i think they have two or three cars in the basement of the library and they have a little display of ephemera and they have his driver's license and
the registration and in there they had a clipping from a magazine, i think, it was a picture of harry filling up his car and this photograph was taken in the summer of '53 when harry and bess truman were leisurely motoring eastward. and that soon after being president, he and bess had taken this trip. so i began researching the story again in 2006 and i found it to be even more fascinating than i -- than i'd hoped. mainly because the main character is so fascinating. harry truman certainly is one of the most unlikely presidents in american history. i would say the most unlikely since grover cleveland, side-bar. grover cleveland was elected mayor of buffalo in 1881, governor of new york in 1882 and president in 1884. so in three years went from mayor of buffalo to president, first time he ever went to
washington was for his inauguration. so it's kind of -- and it's funny because harry remembers grover's second election, harry was born in 1884, so the second time grover was elected, of course, it's nonconsecutive. i'm not going to do the math now but another great democratic president that harry was quite fond of. harry himself for his own unlikeliness was born 125 years ago. his early life was unremarkable. worked in a bank. he was a farmer. on his father's farm in grandview. he opened a haberdasher with his friend in kansas city. and in early 1922, there was a financial crisis in the country, a panic and he and jacobson lost the business and he was 38 and
living at his mother-in-law's. at the time bess told her mother don't worry harry going places and her mother said, he better hurry up. the circumstances did not poor trend greatness but fate, destiny, chance, god -- something intervened as it would time and again, in harry truman's life. and in this particular instance, in the summer of 1922, as an old army buddy who he'd served in france with, and jimmy had an uncle named tom who was the big political boss in kansas city, in jackson county at the time and they were looking for a candidate to run for judge. which you probably know is sort of like a county commissioner. and truman fit the bill perfectly. he was a baptist. he was a mason. he'd been a farmer. so in 1922, he was elected judge.
twelve years later in 1934 they were looking for a good candidate to run for united states senate]"çát'p)ry fits the bill and again, he gets elected.:]/ ten years later in chicago at the 1944 democratic national convention, party bosses are looking for someone to replace henry wallace on the ticket. henry wallace was roosevelt's vice president at the time. talk about a book. henry wallace was a genius, probably one of the smartest men to ever hold national elected office in the united states. he was a plant geneticist by training. dabbled in atron my and metaphysical and was extremely liberal and a little weird and the party bosses in '44 thought we need to replace him and so they did. all the candidates were either too liberal or too conservative so truman got picked. reporters joked it was another missouri compromise. [laughter] >> we all know what happened on april 12th, 1945, franklin
roosevelt died and harry s. truman became president. he had been vice president just 82 days and had met with fdr just twice outside of cabinet meetings. in all that time. his presidency, of course, encompassed major events in the 20th century, the end of world war ii, the cold war, mccarthyism, the united nations. flash forward now eight years, almost, to 1953, january, 20th, and dwight d. eisenhower is inaugurated as president. and just as he was back in that summer of 1922, harry truman is unemployed. after eisenhower's swearing-in the secret service drove harry and bess to union station in washington and they said goodbye and harry and bess rode a train back to independence. i guess they rode the train to kansas city and was there a spur that would go to independence. i think there was a depot in
independence so they could go all the way back to independence. harry didn't really know what to do with himself. there were rumors at the time he would run for senate from missouri. or governor. even that he would run for president in 1956. he was the last president eligible to serve more than two terms. you know, it just occurs to me the republicans passed that why they grandfathered truman in, they could have just said he can't run again either but he was eligible to run for a third term and none of these ideas were that farfetched at the time because the fact of the matter was, harry truman had to do something. he needed income. but he really didn't have any specialized training. he had nothing more than a high school diploma, still the last president without a post-secondary degree and his only income was his army pension r that was for his service in world war i as an officer in the
army. he did not receive credit for his almost eight years as commander in chief. which to me just seems a little unfair. but that's how the army calculated his pension. so he had $112 a month and he needed money because being an ex-president he quickly found was very expensive. he received about 1,000 letters a day when he first left office and his policy was to answer every single one. he felt that if someone wrote him a letter, that it demanded a reply from him. and if you go to the truman library, there are acres of file cabinets filled with his correspondence and the carbon copies. if you sent a newspaper clipping to harry truman, he sent you a letter back and said, thank you, for sending this clipping and sometimes he'd say i don't agree with it. and sometimes he'd say, i agree with it. but he answered every single letter. a stamp at the time cost 3 cents. the first year alone the postage was $10,000.
so he had considerable expenses when he left office and not considerable income. just to handle the mail he rented an office in kansas city in the federal reserve building. he had to two assistants, two women who had worked with him in the white house to help him answer the mail. and with his other, you know, various duties if he got invited to all sorts of things and just handling correspondence. he could have solved his money problems overnight. he received many lucrative business owners. there was a chain of clothing stores that offered to pay him $100,000 a year for a job as a sales manager which wouldn't have required him to do any work. there was a company that wanted to put out a brand of soap, truman soap, keep you clean, come up with your own slogan. i don't know what it would have been. all kinds of offers like this. a lot of them very questionable and harry refused them all. he didn't want to do anything that he thought would commercialize the presidency. he wouldn't -- didn't want to do anything that would demean the office that he had recently
vacated. and so he refused all these offers. he even refused ex extravagant speaking fees. he would take an honor air and donate to the truman library fund but he would not accept big speaking fees or seats or corporate boards. this, of course, is a precedent that has not withstood the test of time. [laughter] >> harry was not the first president to face money problems when he left office. this actually goes back really to the earliest days of the country. james monroe had to move in with his daughter and her husband. he was so destitute. ulysses s. grant famously lost all his money in a swindle at one time. only had $80 in the bank. grant was saved from financial ruin by selling his memoirs to mark twain and the memoirs were commercial and critical success, although, they were published after his death. he finished writing them just shortly before he died.
congress was loathe to grant pensions to presidents. they were a little more generous with widows. presidential widows got $5,000 a year. there were many bills introduced especially after grant's money problems to provide for presidential pensions, but inevitably, these bills died. and, i guess, there was a feeling just looking back at some of the newspaper clippings from the various bills that presidents -- it was undemocratic for presidents to receive pensions that they were just another citizen toiling in the service of their country and that -- when they were done, finished with their presidential service that they would return to being just ordinary citizens. it's really quite a grand ideal but as harry discovered not a very realistic one. incidentally, congress has been a little more generous or was a little more generous with their own pensions. they began collecting pensions in 1946.
unfortunately, for harry, that's the year after he left congress. harry's timing was not very good when it came to getting a pension. about a month after he left office, in february of 1953, it seemed like his money problems were solved when doubleday, the publisher gave harry an advance of $600,000 to write his memoirs. bear in mind, at the time the average worker made about $4,000 a year. it seemed like grant, his problems had been solved, his money problems had been solved by a book deal. but as anybody who's ever gotten a book advance can tell you, they are not always as they seem. and in harry's case the $600,000 book advance was taxed as income at 67% at the time. it's worth noting here that
eisenhower a few years earlier received a $600,000 truman determined that should be taxed as a capital gain at 25% and not as income reasoning that eisenhower was not a general and not a writer by profession so it was a capital gain not income when harry went to the irs, now eisenhower is president and said well, hey, can mine be taxed as capital gain and not income, they said no. and this did not foster positive relations between eisenhower and truman. so $600,000 is out of 200 and he had to hire ghostwriters, ghostwriters, and maintain his office experiences and years later he would say out of that advance he netted $37,000. still, it did let harry splurge a little. and so he bought a car. a big black 1953 chrysler new yorker.
how much he paid for the car, chrysler definitely gave harry a deal and i found a letter that suggested he may have paid as little as $1 and still he bought a car. harry loved cars. when he was president he actually would drive his own limousine occasionally. talk about something you probably won't see again, one time a fourth of july speaking engagement in charlottesville, virginia he drove his limousine back to washington and reporters -- it was reported that he was traveling 65 myrna 50 miles an hour zone and harry was furious and wrote a letter to the editor of the paper that reported it. but it was one of those letters that was never actually sent. the truth was harry did drive too fast. of all the presidential trivia in this book i could say that's pretty much the one indisputable fact. everyone agreed harry truman drove too fast. he was very meticulous about his
cars. he would measure the tire pressure. he would measure the tread regularly in the tire. of course, he watched them change the oil. he was very meticulous about keeping track of his gas mileage. he kept little cards in the glove compartment of the car and every gas purchase he made was truly marked down and the mileage calculated. i know a lot of guys still do that so -- it's not that unusual. i'm doing it on this trip myself. and, of course, he loved to drive. as a senator would drive from independence to washington, d.c. and back. he and bess made the trip quite often when he was in the senate. when he received an invitation to give a speech in philadelphia, he decided to accept it. i think one of the main reasons he decided to accept it was because it would give him an excuse to take a road trip.
he said he wanted to give the new chrysler a real tryout. and this would be the perfect way to do it. drive to the east coast and back again. they could go to washington and see some friends, go up to new york and see their daughter, margaret, who was living there at the time. i also think he wanted to make the transition from being mr. president to as he called it mr. citizen. one of his heroes was the roman general cinanitus who forsook power after battle and went back to the farm. harry believed he could make the move from being leader from the free world to playing private citizen and this was one way he could do it. was by taking this trip. bess perhaps the voice of reason. harry thought he could be
hidden. they weren't young at this point. 68, 69 years old. believe me, that's young. but bus realized also the physical toll it would take -- harry did all the driving when they traveled together. bess never drove when harry was in the car. harry did all the traveling and bess knew he drove too fast so eventually, i guess, he wore her down and she agreed to the trip on the condition that he drive no faster than 55 miles an hour. he agreed to this but it was quite a concession on his part. at the time missouri had no speed limits. the posted limits in missouri -- i think the wording on the sign was safe and prudent is how you were instructed to drive. which i guess it's an objective measure of speed.
but harry agreed to the restriction and so he began planning for this trip. and it's fun to read about it. he planned for this like he was going back to potsdam. he spread the maps out on the dining room table. he charted every mile. he charted every stop that he would make along the way. as i said, he had done the trip in the senate many times so he knew his favorite places. he also tried to mix up the route a little bit so if people did find out that, you know, people couldn't catch up to them. and on the morning of june 19th, 1953, he packed the chrysler with 11 suitcases. margaret -- yeah, they didn't travel light. [laughter] >> they didn't travel light. well, you know, he liked to dress up. the guy -- they both did. margaret said he was an excellent packer. and harry prided himself on that. but now that i think about it, i think you could get fewer than 11 suitcases if you were an excellent packer.
and harry and bess got in the chrysler that morning and started driving east. and a few hours later, i believe they took -- i think you take 24 to monroe city and then 36 to haanible. there was a 12-year-old girl who was working the window of the ice cream stand -- her father owned the stand and this 12-year-old girl named toni -- i was able to find her some she saw the trumans go to the ice cream stand and walk next door to the diner and she knew her dad didn't like it when the diner's customers parked at the ice cream stand and she screamed back to her dad. harry truman just parked out of the front do you want me to have him move the truck. and bud tobin was very surprised
to see that, in fact, harry truman was parked in his parking lot and he went out and chatted with harry for a while and did not make harry move the car. they went into the diner and it was lunchtime. and a fairly busy time of the.e year. and nobody noticed them. and they sat down. they ordered fruit plates and iced tea and they did enjoy their meal in complete anonymity. until they got up to pay. and just as they got up to pay an old county judge walked into the diner and recognized harry. not as a former president but as a former jackson county judge. and said, why there's judge truman. and then everybody in the restaurant wanted his autograph and had to shake his hand. and that's pretty much how it went the rest of the trip. just when they thought they were getting by as a big unknown couple as harry would say, somebody would recognize him and
then as he'd like to see the incog was off. he handled all these onslaughts so well. people ask how could a trip like this take place today. you know, i guess it couldn't just in a practical sense but his personality was so well suited to a trip like this. he never refused any request -- when people pressed around him for autographs and handshakes and somebody asked him one time, you know, how do you deal with these onslaughts on the time i would imagine some big shot ignored me and he did have a sense of empathy like that i think that really made it possible for him to do a trip like this in a way that maybe it wouldn't be possible for some other politicians. i don't know. in decatur, illinois, they stopped at a illinois it was called the park view and they spent the night in decatur, illinois.
$5 a night is what the motel cost. and for the book i retrace the trip. i wanted to see where they went. i tried to eat where they ate. i tried to met with the people they met with. in decatur i found this motel. it's still there. it's new a prison. [laughter] >> it's actually -- it's a prison for work release inmates. and when you think about it, that's a great idea for a motel to turn it into a prison for work release inmates if you're not going to use it for a motel. whether this is a sign of the times in decatur, i can't tell you. i'm kidding, of course. i talked to one of the guards at this -- at the prison now and i mentioned to her how funny i thought it was that an inmate now sleeps in the same room that harry truman now slept in, she said no three inmates sleep in the room that harry truman slept in. in indianapolis they crashed with friends as people often do on road trips. they stayed at the house of the
former democratic national committee chairman frank mckinney and his wife margaret and i spoke with their daughter, claire mckinney, who told me that she came home that night from a night of dancing only to find harry truman playing their family's living room piano, you know, in the early morning hours. apparently harry, had a couple of bourbons that night. in frostburg, maryland they stopped at the princess restaurant a great town in far western maryland. they splurged on the chicken dinner. the cook was an old army mess sergeant and harry, of course, was his old commander in chief so there's no getting away from it there. and soon, of course, business was booming at the princess and phones were ringing all over town. and the principal sap restricti incess that is still in the same family and in the same business.
if you happen to be taking u.s. 40 through western maryland and frostburg the princess has been preserved and they have a little plaque that says harry and bess truman ate lunch here june 21st, 1953. they went to washington and saw friends he gave the speech in philadelphia and went to new york and spent eight interesting days with margaret as their guide sightseeing in new york. they stayed at the waldorf towers. i was curious how harry was to afford this at the truman library, he saved everything. harry never wrote a letter that he didn't save and he has -- they have all the correspondence with the general manager of the waldorf towers and soon after the waldorf heard harry was going to be making a trip and they wrote him a letter you know would you like to stay with us for free and harry